Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Life goes on for brave Iraqis

Another interesting Iraq communique from Phil O'Connor, former political advisor in Illinois who took a leave from his post at an energy firm to help the U.S. State Department and Army Corps of Engineers as a advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity.

Among other things, he was struck by the courage of the Iraqis, the enthusiasm of newly baptized Christians from South America, and the efficiency of a much-maligned company.

I have now completed three weeks in Iraq and in any number of ways it is the experience of a lifetime. People who told me that it be both rewarding and frustrating were right. The work and people are fascinating and there is an intensity that does make one feel young again. If there is a theme for this communiqué, however, it is that even in the midst of trouble and suffering, life does go on.

1) Easter and the Baghdad bug season came at the same time (and I heard over WBEZ on the internet that the cicadas have hit Chicago). I reported last time on the centrality of religious faith in the IZ and Easter naturally reinforced that impression. At the Easter vigil Mass on Saturday evening about 30 people were confirmed, with perhaps two dozen of those being Peruvian and Chilean security personnel who protect various key installations in the IZ. The half-dozen baptisms and 30 confirmations were in the middle of Mass between the Gospel and the offertory. When the priest tried to re-commence Mass he could not get things calmed down. I have never seen a happier bunch of people in my life than these South Americans who acted like they had just gotten to Disneyland, taking photos and posing with one another and with the priest. It was priceless. When I was confirmed about 45 years ago I recall the bishop reminding us that we were now "soldiers of Christ." Confirmation in the IZ brings a whole new meaning to that phrase. I think that if the Pope gets wind of how many baptisms and confirmations Padre Lim is doing here, you may see his photo up at the Vatican as "Employee of the Month" with that close-in parking spot near St. Peter's.

2) Bug season did bring my attention to something that is easy to miss with the background noise of helicopters and large vehicles—the IZ is full of song birds. The other day at Mass it was hard to hear the choir over the birds who were, no doubt, getting out the word that bug season had come and it was chow time. At least someone was happy about the bugs.

3) Easter also coincided with the fourth anniversary of what I would call the "liberation of Baghdad" and others might refer to in less affirmative ways. There are quite a few Iraqis working in the IZ and in the Embassy itself. In many ways they are the backbone of this whole thing, of course. The new US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, made the very important gesture last week of being sworn in on a temporary stage set up in the Green Bean coffee room in the Palace that houses the Embassy. He had foregone the usual swearing in with all the trappings in Washington. He made the point that I would underscore here. It is hard to describe the courage of the Iraqis who work in the IZ and run huge risks just getting to work everyday. Many live in neighborhoods that are still wracked by sectarian violence and massive criminal activity which go hand in hand. I met recently with three people who serve in an Iraqi governmental unit. One man had recently come back after several weeks during which he had moved his family to a remote part of Iraq. A woman had a young nephew, just a little boy, who had been kidnapped and successfully ransomed. The other man's brother and nephew had been kidnapped and successfully ransomed. In spite of all this, there is a genuine cheerfulness that comes across, including from the many Iraqi security people in and around the residential area I live in. It is easy to forget from the news reports that the great majority of Iraqis are desperately trying to live normal lives and have a semblance of liberty after so many years of Saddam, who, let there be no mistake, was one of the worst. (He also had terrible taste in architecture and furnishings, but that is for another day.) But life does go on here. The other evening I was listening to an Iraqi FM radio station (there are many call-in and talk shows, news & politics and music stations) and they played the familiar Happy Birthday song for someone. So some thing are the same the world over.

4) I have become a bit of a local "rock star," not because of my efforts to say good morning and so forth in my fractured Arabic, but because of the hundreds of mini-flashlights from Safety National Casualty Company I have been able to give out. Harry Ilg, the president of SNCC, and I serve together on the board of Delphi Financial Group of which SNCC is an operating insurance company. Harry has been a one-man USO sending over boxes of the various promotional trinkets the company uses. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, diplomatic people and contractors of various ranks as well as Iraqi, Gurkha and South American security guards are finding their way around the IZ at night with those flashlights.

5) You know you are getting old when you see someone and the word "kid" sticks in your head and then you see that he is a Lt. Colonel. I had that epiphany on Holy Thursday at Mass under very sad circumstances that further illustrate the sacrifice being made by the Iraqis. When it came time for anyone in the congregation to offer an intention, this young Army officer, his voice breaking, asked that we remember his unit's translator, "Michael," who had been murdered the prior week, and for Michael's family. I could see him wiping away the tears and the other officer next to him doing his bets to comfort him. At the end of Mass, people spontaneously went up to him and pressed money into his hands to help out Michael's wife and two young children.

6) I will end with two of those important little elements of normal life: food and laundry. I know that if one goes by the news stories it would be easy to conclude that KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary soon to be spun off, is some sort of dreadful, money grubbing bunch of no-goodniks. I think most anyone who has been here for any length of time comes to think of KBR as "mom." Indeed, just about 10 days ago a woman working for KBR who handled billeting in the Embassy area was killed along with a young Pennsylvania National Guard sergeant in the same hostile incident. She had become a mom of sorts to many people. KBR does a magnificent job on the whole range of things called (rather uncomfortably in my estimation) "life support." The DFACs (dining facilities) are clean, well run and the food is terrific and on Easter the Easter Bunny made a personal appearance in the DFAC. The food is almost too good and too much. In some ways (and only some ways) the IZ is a nine-year old boy's dream come true—armored vehicles, helicopters, guns, unlimited burgers, hotdogs, cookies, ice cream and soda pop, and people who will clean your room and do your laundry without yelling at you. As for laundry, which is easy and good, I did get a great question from my five-year old pal, Jack, of Lake Forest, Illinois. Not only did he want to know why I wore bullet proof jacket sometimes—he wanted to know how I cleaned it. I told him that as best as I could tell my flak jacket had not been cleaned since Guadalcanal.

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